I HAVE SEEN NUMEROUS CLIENTS OVER THE YEARS that are able, all alone, to destroy relationships one after the other. And the mechanism is invariably induction. They can induce others to violence or induce others to hate them, or to betray them or belittle them – even if this was not part of the usual behavior of the perpetrator. Sometimes the induction is behavioral and you can see it. Other times it is an inward process and you can only see the results in its effects. This is the most sinister type.

I suspect that some of the worst behaviors of people in war situations are “induced” – by a climate of hatred and paranoia. There is actually “collective induction,” and the harm is then multiplied by the number of people involved.

Perception, the second of the three modalities, although the easiest to detect, is probably the least potent. Through perception, we interpret current situations in terms of historical experience. We are not in touch with the actual reality but are in fact projecting our past reality into current events. In the case of Yvonne for example, her violent father is perceived in each of her male partners. It is not always an easy task to disentangle the projected reality from the actual one. What if the chosen partner is, in fact, an aggressive, violent personality?

In this context, sometimes it is helpful to bring in the partner to see them, in flesh and blood, if possible. The result is, at times, surprising.


Edna was a lady of Portuguese origin, going out seriously for the first time – in her early thirties. Her father had been a laborer with violent outbursts who died early in her life but left an indelible impression on his daughter’s psyche. Edna had begun dating John but would get very anxious at times when he showed the least amount of impatience or irritability. She herself wasn’t sure whether he was in fact a violent man or not. I suggested that she bring him in.

Evaluating people in one session is not always an easy maneuver as people can give a false impression in the first interview. I have seen experienced and competent psychiatrists making serious diagnostic errors in the emergency room – being misled by a patient’s “good behavior”. At other times the aggression is there for all to see – just pouring out in front of you.

So we brought in John and there was little doubt as to what was happening. He was a soft-spoken, mild and shy man who reminded one more of a teddy bear than of the fierce grizzly that Edna was perceiving. I confronted him a few times about his lack of initiative and generally passive stance in life but despite the provocation got only the mildest of reactions. I probed his previous relationships and violence had never been an issue. And I checked carefully his family history and again came up empty-handed. In fact, I ended up referring him to a colleague for assertiveness-training as he had considerable employment problems due to his lack of assertiveness. I can now say, more than fifteen years later, that they are still together and violence has never been an issue in their marriage. Almost all of the perceived violence was a projection from Edna’s past.

What about the “S” modality-selection? This is actually the heart of the matter, as it is the easiest to manipulate. People invariably choose partners that correspond to their self-object models explained in the previous section on Object Relations Theory. In other words they choose the appropriate complement. And this is the basis of the “Relationship Pattern” – a now commonly accepted term in pop-psychology. The victim chooses a bully. The bully chooses a victim. The unloved one chooses a narcissist and the narcissist chooses an admirer.

We are speaking here of pathology, of course. If we want to counsel people properly, we would have to identify the pathological pattern and work to avoid and undo it. This is often more difficult than it sounds. You cannot get someone interested in a partner if there is no attraction whatsoever. If the potential partner is other than the complement, the chooser may well find them uninteresting or boring.

An elderly therapist I once knew liked to tell me about one of his male clients who fell neatly into the category known by the English as the “Bitch’s Victim”. He invariably chose the nastiest females available. During the course of his therapy, he met a classmate and started dating her. He could find no obvious fault in her. She was intelligent, attractive, socially charming and a kind and sensitive person. But he would come to his therapy sessions complaining, “There’s something missing, I don’t know what it is” and the therapist would answer him, “I know what’s missing. It’s anxiety. She doesn’t create stress for you and you’re missing it.” The client eventually got the point. He had to adapt to being comfortable. He was used to discomfort and distress and looked for it in relationships.

Amidst all this pathology and negativity you may well wonder what makes for a good relationship. Here I refer to the three Cs. They are Chemistry, Communication and Circumstances.

“Chemistry” has become a popular term nowadays. We could call it attraction, affinity or even instinct but there is something in our being that says either “yes” or ” no” to the possibility- of connecting with a member of the opposite sex, and it is not just a matter of physical appearance. In fact there is an element of mystery in the process – as if a higher and deeper force is actually running the show. This may well be the basis of the Islamic “Sunna” that potential partners see each other before deciding on marriage and not be forced into marriage by their parents – a Sunna that at first view seems to go against the prohibition around women displaying their beauty.

If instead of following the chemistry one engages in a marriage of reason, one may later live to regret it. Many years later one of the partners may begin complaining, “But I have never experienced love” and since human love is a reflected image of Divine love, the acuteness of the pain and the loss may be intense indeed. Marriages have broken up for less. Even the cousin of the Prophet (May God bless him and grant him peace), Zaynab, was not able to continue in these circumstances, despite being a pious and generous lady. The chemistry was missing with her husband Zayd, may Allah be pleased with them both.


Sura 7, Al-Araf verse 189 (Yusuf Ali trans.) reads:

It is He who created

You from a single person

And made his mate

Of like nature, in order that

He might dwell with her (in love).

In this succinct passage is a wealth of wisdom and a high ideal.

Being created from a single self (nafs) there is naturally a strong affinity (chemistry) in the couple. The “like nature” highlights the recognition of the other as part of the self and suggests an element of destiny in the proper choice.

And the dwelling together (in love) contains the last two of the Cs – Communication and Circumstances. The Qur’anic commentator Abdul Majid Daryabadi puts it this way: “The word dwelling (repose) puts in a nutshell the various attitudes the two sexes can adopt towards each other – of love in youth, companionship in middle age and of care and attendance in infirmity (old age).” What depth and subtlety concerning relationships!

If one looks up the Arabic word “yaskun” (translated as “dwell”) in the dictionary one comes up with the following meanings:

* To be or become still, tranquil peaceful;

* To calm down, repose, rest;

* To cease (anger, pain and the like);

* To be reassured;

* To rely on, have faith or trust in;

* To feel at home.

What a beautiful ideal is contained in these meanings. What a contrast with the current state of marriage and couple relationships.

It would be unfair however to say that the problem is entirely new. Even in the history of the great Prophets (upon whom be peace) one can see evidence of marital tensions. The Prophet Abraham had to deal with the tension and jealousy between Sara and Hagar and one of them had to leavealbeit for a great destiny and the building of the Holy Ka’ba.

The Prophet Muhammad (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) as well had to deal with marital tension. In a wellknown event in his Ufe story, he stayed away from his wives for a full month much to the consternation of the fledgling Islamic Community in Medina. They were seriously worried about the possible disruption of their community if he actually divorced his wives. All ended well though and the Islamic community continued to flourish but not of course, without periods of tension and crises. One must add that the more general climate was one of harmony.

The level of disruption and conflict in couples has never been as high as in modern times – divorce levels of 67%, single-parent households abounding, marital harmony the exception rather than the rule. What is happening? What are we to do?


There are no easy solutions for the deeper social turmoil that we are all experiencing. However, we each have the obligation of doing our best and trying to survive in difficult times. In this perspective I present the work of the Seattle Marital and Family Institute. From an Islamic point of view, I think it not unfair to consider this approach as the operationalizing of the Sunna of Muhammad (may God bless him and grant him peace). The parallels in the teachings are many despite the great difference in their sources.

I first heard of John Gottrnan in a newspaper article which reported the following: “research group able to predict divorce rate with greater than 90% accuracy.” This sensationalist title piqued my curiosity and I began tracing back the source via the Internet to a major work published by the Gottrnan Institute called, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

The Seattle Institute did something unique in the field. They observed couples in laboratory situations (actually fabricated apartments) with audio and video equipment for extended periods of time. (In order to respect the privacy and intimacy of the couple, the recording equipment was shut down after 9 pm at night and not present in bathrooms). These observations continued for many years. Included in the observations were physiological responses such as heart rate and blood pressure.

From these very extensive observations, Dr. Gottrnan and his team arrived at certain solid, empirically-based conclusions. This was very different from many of the other studies of family therapy – all based on theoretical positions and relatively brief therapy sessions. Here was actual data not theory and not necessarily pathological. “Ordinary” couples were interacting in “ordinary” ways.

Firstly, the Seattle group discovered the destructive forces in marriage. There were four principal ones. They called them “The Four Horsemen” after “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” from the Biblical Book of Revelations. They are: 1) Criticism; 2) Contempt; 3) Defensiveness; and 4) Stonewalling.

Criticism does not refer to ordinary complaints like “you should have done the dishes last night” or “why didn’t you take out the garbage”. It has more to do with character assassination tactics like “You didn’t take out the garbage tonight. You are just a lazy, inconsiderate slob.”

Contempt can take many forms. It may include namecalling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. According to Gottrnan, it is the worst of the four as it conveys disgust and it is impossible to resolve problems when a partner feels that you are disgusted with them. This is the opposite of respect and positive regard.

Contempt can also be quite subtle. The Seattle group found that just turning one’s eyes upwards as if to say, “Here she goes again” is enough to predict marital failure in over 90% of cases. The current younger generation is full of expressions of contempt such as “Whatever”, “Loser”, “Nerd”, “Geek”, “Freak” and other new terms being invented all the time. This plethora of insults is a sign of the deterioration in social relations.

Defensiveness is a way of blaming the partner. It is saying that the problem is you rather than me. Its effect is invariably to escalate the conflict. Its cause is denial and guilt. Its mechanism is a sort of psychological deafness and its effect is inevitably hostile. The ultimate effect is alienation.

Stonewalling is the end game of defensiveness. By the time one partner is stonewalling nothing is getting through. Gottrnan gives the example of the husband who on returning from work meets with a barrage of criticism from his wife and hides behind the newspaper. When she continues, he leaves the room. By turning away from her, he avoids the fight but at the same time is disengaging himself from the marriage.

IN TRYING TO TREAT THESE SITUATIONS, GOTTMAN began to realize that it was not enough to deal with and eliminate the negative. He had to also begin developing alternative positive behaviors and attitudes. This in itself is a very instructive conclusion. Correcting the negative can end up feeding it and becoming obsessed with it. We must strive to develop positive alternatives. From this come the seven positive principles in the title of the book.

Gottrnan states that the basis of an enduring marriage is a solid friendship in the couple. This friendship comes from “mutual positive regard”. The seven principles are designed to further solidify this already solid friendship:


Get to know your partner – their preferences and their dislikes. Emotionally intelligent couples are intimately familiar with each other’s world. They know each other’s goals, each other’s worries, each other’s hopes and expectations.

She knows what kind of salad dressing he likes, and he knows how she feels about her boss at work. She knows what deadlines he is working towards and he knows how she feels about his sister-in-law. These are the nuts and bolts of communication.


Gottrnan states: “Although happily married couples may be driven to distraction at times by their partner’s personality flaws, they still feel that the person they married is worthy of honor and respect. When this sense is completely missing from a relationship (i.e. contempt has taken over) the relationship cannot be revived.”

My own take on this is that there is a gender distinction here. Men need to feel admired (for their achievements) and women need to feel loved (for themselves). In either case the need for positive regard is fundamental.

Gottman continues: “Fondness and admiration can be fragile unless you remain aware of how crucial they are to the friendship that is at the core of any good marriage. By simply reminding yourself of your spouse’s positive qualities – even as you grapple with each other’s flaws – you can prevent a happy marriage from deteriorating.”


This involves taking each other’s side, even if you believe his or her perspective is unreasonable. Don’t side with the opposition as this will make the spouse resentful or dejected. This means that if the spouse comes home and complains about the harshness of his employer, don’t even attempt to justify the employer’s behavior at the expense of your partner. The truth in this situation can wait for later.


This can be especially hard for males. As Muslims, we have been encouraged to consult. And after all the best of consultants is often right next to us. So we have to get around the trap of always wanting to be right and always knowing everything.

For example, one of the natural areas of conflict occurs in household organization. Men seem to be more aware of the functional aspects of things (How strong is the water pressure? How many amps of electricity are in the electrical boxes? How many beams are supporting the floors?) while women tend to be more aware of the aesthetics (the wallpaper is old and dingy, the lighting is dim, and none of the windows have curtains). There is an obvious complementarity here, but it can easily break down into conflict – especially if the budget is tight and priorities have to be set.

Once again, communication and compromise are de rigueur. Any attempt to tyrannically impose one’s will is likely to be met with resentment and bitterness even if acquiescence is the initial reaction.


These include relations with in-laws, dealing with moneymatters, distributing housework, and conflicts about raising children. Each of these subjects are potential minefields.

Although each of these dimensions operates according to their own laws, the basic approach has to be the same:

a) Soften the startup, i.e. don’t begin with hostility and attack. Instead of “I hate it when your mother comes over” try “The next time your mother comes over, could you tell her that it really hurts me when she criticizes my child-rearing practices.”

b) Learn to back off and make repair attempts. Don’t keep pushing the point if you are at loggerheads. Avoid emotional flooding.

c) Soothe yourself and each other. Again, avoid emotional flooding. Take a break. “Chill out” as they say in modern lingo.

d) Look for compromise and common ground. Dr. Phil, the TV psychology guru likes to repeat in his shows “A couple is negotiation.” In order for this to occur, one must return to principle four – allowing yourself to be influenced.

e) Be tolerant of each other ‘ s faults.


There are inevitably some unsolvable problems in couples. Here Dr. Gottrnan has an interesting insight. He claims that one of the major sources of unsolvable problems is not including each person’s dreams in the couple’s contract.

I have seen this in my practice on numerous occasions. For example, if the woman has always dreamed of having children and the male partner objects for whatever reason (maybe this is his second marriage and he feels he has no energy left for other children), this will sabotage the marriage. Another example is the male who has always dreamed of having his own business. If his female partner is too insecure and pushes him to take a stable job at a large firm this too will weigh heavily against the success of their union.

Actually there is a spiritual dimension to this particular dilemma. The deep-seated dreams we carry in our hearts are reflections of our destiny, given to us by our Creator. If we resist and oppose them, we are actually resisting Divine Will and no good can come from this.


This may involve family rituals, the evening meal together or common goals (building a house , preparing together for a world tour or developing a charitable project).

In this vein Gottrnan leaves us with a series of practical suggestions as to time management. He calls this the magic five hours:

a) Say goodbye in the morning and find out one item in the day’s agenda of the spouse. ( 2 minutes each workday)

a) Debrief together at the end of each work day to unstress. (20 minutes each workday)

a) Communicate some genuine affection and appreciation every day. (5 minutes each day)

a) Express affection physically once a day, Could be a kiss or a hug or back rub. (5 minutes each day)

a) A weekly date (away from the pressures of home and work). This can take many forms – a visit to the coffee shop, a meal at a restaurant or a long walk in nature. (2 hours per week)

Now do the math. It’s 5 hours per week – a very worthwhile investment.


I hope I have been able in this brief essay to give some of the more important principles of the psychology of couple relationships. There is, of course, much more to say including numerous other illustrative case histories that I was unable to include in such a short essay.

Suffice it to say that our marital and family life is a vital and precious part of our existence. It is the cauldron in which our characters are formed and it is a wonderful context in which to work on our character (akhlaq). No other situation gives us a better mirror within which to see our faults and shortcomings and to try to correct them.

Between our parents, our spouses and our children there is no excuse for any of us not to be aware of our personal limitations. Then we must turn to our beliefs and teachings and to our Lord to help us to correct ourselves.

May God help us in this greatest of struggles (Jihad alAkbar) as the nafs we struggle with is nowhere more apparent than in our family interactions.

Note: The details of the case histories have been altered to protect the identities of the persons involved. Any resemblance to persons alive or deceased is thus only very partial. The identities of actual persons should not be inferred. This notice applies as well to the previous and forthcoming articles by Dr. Kreps.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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